COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Removing trees from part of Interstate 385 has reduced the number of crashes and deaths along a stretch of the highway in Laurens County, according to the South Carolina Department of Transportation.

Workers cut down trees within 50 feet of the pavement when part of the highway was rebuilt several years ago, meeting national guidance on keeping the shoulders and medians of highways clear of obstructions.

In the five years before the project, there was an average of about 12 crashes each year where drivers hit trees and six total deaths. In the three years since the trees were removed, there have been an average of three crashes into trees each year and no deaths, according to DOT data given to The Greenville News.

The overall number of crashes per year along the 15-mile rebuilt stretch of I-385 is down 22 percent, according to the agency.

"The data clearly show a significant increase in safety, which is our main goal at SCDOT," said Tony Sheppard, director of traffic engineering. "From six deaths in tree-related crashes to zero during the study period is a dramatic improvement."

The DOT also wants to cut down trees in a 30-mile stretch of the median of Interstate 26 near Charleston. But a number of Lowcountry leaders have fought the plan, saying the trees help keep the highway from looking ugly and that speeding and drunken driving are the problems.

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Information from: The Greenville News, http://www.greenvillenews.com